khaddam memories … Sharon’s surprise visit to Lebanon’s presidential palace

publisher: المجلة AL Majalla

AUTHOR: ابراهيم حميدي

Publishing date: 2024-05-21


It is June 1982, and Beirut is surrounded by the Israelis. In the city, there are Syrian soldiers and Palestinian fighters from Yasser Arafat’s PLO. The Israelis want them both out. Cue the diplomacy.

Al Majalla

In June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon for a second time after the attempted assassination of its ambassador in London. Following a three-pronged attack, Israel’s forces reached the Lebanese capital, Beirut, in a matter of days before laying siege to the city. Palestinian fighters had built a strong base there, operating autonomously, like a state-within-a-state.

Al Majalla has obtained access to what has become known as the Khaddam Files, which shed light on this turbulent period in Lebanon. Abdul Halim Khaddam was Syrian’s foreign minister at the time.

Later, he became Syria’s vice president and served under Hafez al-Assad and then under his son Bashar until he became disillusioned with the Syrian regime, abandoned his post and fled to France in 2005, taking with him secret documents detailing regional events during his time in office.

Below is the first instalment of this five-part series.

It is June 1982, and the Israelis invaded and advanced on Beirut, demanding the expulsion of both the Syrians and Arafat (known as Abu Ammar) and his fighters. Syrian forces had been stationed in Lebanon since 1976 as an Arab Deterrent Force. The late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad cautioned Lebanon’s President Élias Sarkis against using his army to eject Syrian forces and criticised the appointment of a Lebanese liaison officer within the Israeli army in Lebanon.

On 13 June, Damascus received a message from Beirut’s military commander saying the Israeli commander “deemed it necessary, both morally and practically, to utilise communication channels within the Lebanese army to inform the commander of the Arab Deterrent Forces of their final opportunity for an honourable withdrawal of Syrian forces from Beirut, Jamhour, and Aley”.

In the absence of a response by noon on 15 June 1982, or in the event of a negative one, it said Syrians “would be held accountable for any human casualties and ensuing destruction, as the Israeli forces were mandated to expel the Syrians from Beirut”. It added that the Israeli commander “desires to avoid going to battle, which, in his view, has known outcomes due to the significant power imbalance”.

Signalling to Sarkis

After deliberating with his core team, al-Assad relayed his response to Brigadier Sami el-Khatib, commander of the Arab Deterrent Forces. “Our presence in Beirut is sanctioned by Arab consensus and endorsed by the rightful Lebanese authority,” he said.

“Lebanon stands as an Arab and sovereign nation, and we will defend Lebanon and its legitimacy, as well as the Palestinian people, with all our capabilities.”

On the day of the deadline, Khaddam received a message from President Sarkis via el-Khatib. “The current military situation on the ground does not inspire any confidence in the so-called promises given to us regarding Israel not entering Beirut,” he said.

“We have not been able to obtain guarantees, and it is our duty to prevent the destruction of the capital and to strive to avoid it so that it does not suffer the same fate as Sidon and Tyre in southern Lebanon.”

Given the situation, Sarkis said he would order the Lebanese army into Beirut, hoping to gain political leverage, “even if it may not wholly prevent the capital’s invasion”.



The late Lebanese President Elias Sarkis. 

He added: “I feel compelled to issue this directive imminently, necessitating the withdrawal of all forces, including Syrian forces, from within the capital to alternative areas to be designated later.

“It is incumbent upon me to appraise you of this course of action, ensuring that you are not caught off guard by any such decision aimed at salvaging what remains and fulfilling my duty during these pivotal moments of my nation’s history.”

Sharon surprise

El-Khatib informed Khaddam of two separate exchanges in Lebanon involving Israeli Defence Minister Ariel Sharon. In the first, Sharon strode into the office of Lt. Col. Rafik Al-Hassan, a police commander in Baabda, saying: “I am the defence minister.”

Al-Hassan rose to his feet and saluted before saying: “But you are not His Excellency Joseph Beik Skaff.” Sharon replied that he was Israel’s defence minister, prompting Al-Hassan to “sink back into his chair in astonishment”.

The second exchange involved Farouk Abi Al-Lama’, director of Lebanese General Security and a close friend of President Sarkis, and his visit to the palace, where he found the president and education minister René Mouawad playing backgammon. Al-Lama’ promptly relayed the news of Sharon’s presence at the Baabda Palace, to which Mouawad jokingly replied: ‘Let’s set aside these jests. It is not the time for bad jokes. Let’s proceed with the game.’

Further, the correspondence shows that al-Assad wanted to underscore “the ongoing commitment to the relationship with President Sarkis and the continued willingness to support him and Lebanon”.

Al-Assad’s response

The next day, on 16 June, Khaddam replied to el-Khatib on behalf of al-Assad on the question of a possible withdrawal of Syrian forces, as demanded by the Israelis and some Lebanese. It noted that Syria had “collaborated with President Sarkis and made sacrifices for the betterment of Lebanon”, adding that Damascus still wanted to see a strong and independent Lebanon with “a robust central authority”.

Khaddam’s letter continued: “We stand prepared to contribute actively towards this objective both now and in the future. In this vein, we assert that our foremost priority should be collective action to liberate Lebanon from Israeli occupation.

“Our collaboration aims to eliminate this occupation and implement post-occupation measures essential for the central authority to exercise control over all Lebanese territories. Our commitment to this cause is underscored by a meticulously outlined plan, which we are prepared to endorse and execute with precision and integrity. Should President Sarkis seek Arab endorsement for this plan, we propose the possibility of convening either an expanded or mini-Arab summit conference. We eagerly await a response on this matter.”

Khaddam added that Damascus saw any decision by Sarkis “to withdraw the deterrent forces from Beirut, particularly in the face of Israeli forces encroaching upon the outskirts of the city, as profoundly perilous”.

He said: “Such a decision implies a capitulation of Syrian forces and those engaged in resistance from both Palestinian and Lebanese factions to the advancing Israeli forces.”

“It is possible that President Sarkis may not fully grasp the ramifications of this decision, but we share a collective concern for the dignity of the Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, and all Arabs, especially in the context of confronting Israeli aggression.”

Convening for unity

After receiving this response, Sarkis retracted the idea of deploying the army, but Khaddam later wrote of “a state of shock, frustration, and chaos in Lebanon, as the state was not only unable to confront the occupation but also unwilling”.

He said that “from the very beginning, the (Lebanese) army cooperated by appointing Maj. Fawzi Abu Sarhan as liaison officer to the Israeli forces… The Lebanese Forces provided cover and support for the occupation forces, while others faced airstrikes, ground attacks, and naval bombardment.”

While Habib conducted his shuttle diplomacy, “the only initiative taken by the (Lebanese) state was the formation of the National Salvation Authority, chaired by President Sarkis”, wrote Khaddam.

According to a document from Syria’s intelligence apparatus in Beirut, the Authority convened on 20 June 1982 with Sarkis, Prime Minister Shafik Al-Wazzan, Deputy Prime Minister Fuad Butros, Minister Nasri Maalouf, Amal Movement leader Nabih Berri, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and Christian leader Bachir Gemayel. They all agreed on the need for an Israeli withdrawal from all Lebanese territory and the assertion of Lebanese sovereignty over that territory.



Yasser Arafat meets Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and the head of the Shiite Amal Movement, Nabih Berri, before leaving Beirut on August 30,1982.


Diverging interests

However, the National Movement (represented by Jumblatt) and the Amal Movement (represented by Berri) had additional priorities, including protecting the Palestinian resistance in Lebanon and confirming the necessity of Syria’s presence.

The Lebanese Authority and the Lebanese Front (co-founded by Gemayel’s father, Pierre), meanwhile, urged the Lebanese army into West Beirut for the transfer of heavy Palestinian weaponry in Beirut to the Lebanese army. They wanted light arms only to be allowed in the big Palestinian camps, which had become well-armed fortifications and said Palestinians could stay in Lebanon only if they restricted their activities to political and media pursuits.

Two committees were formed. The first was asked to articulate the views of various Lebanese and Palestinian groups. The other was formed to engage with the US envoy, Philip Habib, and exert pressure on the Israelis.

This committee, which consisted of Butros, Maalouf, and Gemayel, sought to present the case for preventing Israel’s incursion into Beirut, instead urging the Israelis to retreat 5km outside the city to facilitate negotiations. It also determined that the Syrian presence in Lebanon “can only be terminated through mutual agreement between the Lebanese authority and the Arab Summit”.

Laying down the law

The Lebanese had to relay their position to Philip Habib, who would then relay these sentiments and demands to the Americans and the Israelis. Given the pressure being applied to the Palestinian resistance in Lebanon both militarily and politically, a withdrawal of fighters to the Palestinian camps was suggested in exchange for a reciprocal Israeli withdrawal to alleviate the siege of Beirut.

Concurrently, all parties would agree to allow the Lebanese army to oversee vacated areas, with assurances of preventing Israeli entry facilitated by the army. On 23 June, in response, Habib appraised Arafat and the Palestinians of the American and Israeli stance. Washington and Tel Aviv would not tolerate any of the Palestinian resistance’s military forces in Lebanon, they said.

Furthermore, there would be no territorial sovereignty granted to any organisation, including the Palestinian authority. Palestinians would have to adhere to the governing authority’s jurisdiction, even within the camps.

Finally, there was an affirmation of “Lebanese sovereignty over all Lebanese territory, with no exceptions for Palestinians, whether in Beirut or elsewhere”. This clear and firm retort posed a major question to the Palestinian leaders and factions, namely whether they would opt to remain in Lebanon. The paperwork shows the diplomatic way this was put, noting that “clarity is sought”.